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January 20, 2019

Big data key to smart policies

Tour operators during a peace walk to urge Kenyans for a peaceful election along city streets./FILE
Tour operators during a peace walk to urge Kenyans for a peaceful election along city streets./FILE

Governments face a legion of challenges – healthcare, education, housing, water and sanitation, transportation, employment, agriculture, security, inequality and social cohesion – whose solutions underpin the quality of life of their citizens.

African countries, as portrayed by the Human Development Index, carry an inordinate burden of human welfare challenges. The dismal quality of health in most countries is demonstrated by how often senior government officials, including presidents, seek medical treatment abroad. The failure of public education has created a lucrative private education market across the continent.

Moreover, private security companies are doing roaring business on the continent. Slumlords profit immensely from providing low-cost squalid dwellings that erode basic human decency. Transportation is left in the hands of unregulated profiteers who have no regard for public safety.

Equitable delivery of services and improvement of human welfare is the domain of public policy. Here is a simple analogy. Think about politics as an organised contest comprising multiple stakeholders called political parties and their constituencies. And think of public policy as a system of mediation that ensures transparency in the determination of who gets what, where, when and why.

Every African country has politicians, hence a government and a plethora of public policies. Why are services inadequate? Why does the continent have the lowest scores on the Human Development Index?

Why do millions of Africa’s children die from preventable diseases? Why do millions of children complete primary school without acquiring basic numeracy or literacy skills? Why are African farms unproductive, and why will hundreds of millions of Africans sleep hungry tonight? Why has rapid GDP growth failed to produce jobs for hundreds of millions of youth?

We must stop piling more resources to fund existing programmes and policies. They are not working. We must look at all our challenges again and ask different questions, and take a different approach to policy making. The rapid advances in the capacity to collect, store and process large volumes of data rapidly – big data – is providing new tools for problem diagnosis, policy design, testing and monitoring.

The unique combination of big data, the associated analytic and design thinking, offer new ways to think about and solve big problems in areas such as health, education, agriculture and urbanisation. Furthermore, the eruption of social media is also opening novel ways that enable a human-centred approach to policymaking.

Big data and design thinking allow us to arrive more efficiently at verifiable problem diagnosis. Big data and design thinking provide a basis for defining and coordinating stakeholder engagement. More importantly, big data and design thinking provide leverage for experimentation and rapid prototyping and testing policy solutions before full-scale implementation.

One of the biggest failures of current policy framing is the naïve belief that there is a linear path between policy objectives and policy outcomes. The challenges we seek to address through policy are inherently wicked. Big data and design thinking will enable the policy community to grapple with complexity and uncertainty throughout the policy cycle.


Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University


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